Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prep Like Me

I reacted to last week's appearance of Lisa Birnbach on The Colbert Report the way some people might react to hearing that Michael Jordan was going to be playing a little pick-up ball at the court down the street.

I can hear you already -- who the heck is Lisa Birnbach?

Lisa Birnbach is the author of The Official Preppy Handbook. Released in 1980, the book was a satire of the preppy, WASP culture of New England. It was filled with pictures and advice on how to live the preppy life. It was an utterly hilarious piece of wry satire.

In 1980, I was nine. (Go ahead, kids. Do the math.) My definition of humor began and ended with Garfield. I would spend hours roaring with laughter over the antics of the lasagna-loving cat. I did not understand satire and would not understand satire for several more years.

Nine-year-old Mel did not understand that The Official Preppy Handbook was supposed to be funny. When a copy of the book somehow found its way into my hands (and I'm not entirely sure how it happened), I saw it not as a parody but rather as a Bible. For the next several years, my dog-eared copy of the book was my constant companion. I would read it with religious zeal. My wardrobe became dominated by polo shirts, khakis, and boat shoes. (How I loved my boat shoes!) My ultimate wish list book became the LL Bean catalog. I became a rabid tennis fan (although my complete inability to play the game would always frustrate me -- coordination and athleticism are not my friends!) I can remember getting into a huge fight with my dad when he informed me that I would NOT be sent away to boarding school when I hit ninth grade. (Please remember that I grew up in Illinois . . . there aren't a ton of boarding schools here in the Midwest, especially not the kind I dreamed of -- namely Eastland Academy from The Facts of Life. My sister accuses me of wanting to be Blair Warner, but in truth, I really wanted to be Natalie Green -- chubby, funny, creative . . . I had Natalie Green written all over me!)

As I grew older and entered high school and college, I took tentative steps away from the preppy life. My polo shirts and penny loafers were replaced by tie-dyed t-shirts and Birkenstocks. I no longer dreamed of BMW's and country club life. And yet I still got the LL Bean catalog. I still ascribed to so many of the beliefs and attitudes that I first encountered in the book -- the snobbery of which my sister so often accuses me most likely began the day I picked that book up.

As Lisa Birnbach releases a new book (True Prep) this month about the preppy life, I find myself falling back into some of those habits, too. I sit here typing this wearing an LL Bean polo shirt and khakis. There's an LL Bean boat and tote sitting next to me that could probably be featured on the "what's in the preppy bag" pages of her new book. But I also sit here wearing Birkenstock clogs and listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In my old age, perhaps I've finally found a way to bridge the gap between the preppydom of my youth and the Boho sensibilities of my, um, not so youth. I've discovered a comfort in the timelessness of preppydom even if I don't ascribe to all of the beliefs I once did. And maybe a little of it is just the realization that a nearly 40-year-old woman in punk rock t-shirts and ripped jeans (yup, I wore those, too) isn't as cute as it used to be.

And isn't it funny how so much in life comes full circle? Who among us hasn't found ourselves digging out an old CD we haven't listened to in ages or easing into a beat up old t-shirt from our youth? I've even found myself thinking that driving a station wagon might not be such a bad idea. I heard the other day on the radio that the bulk of our personality is determined by the time we enter first grade, so maybe it's just a case of our adult lives being devoted to unpacking all that stuff that was established decades ago and rediscovering parts of ourselves we thought we'd lost. And for me, maybe that's what rediscovering my prep is all about.

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